By BILL DELEHUNT
Mercifully, the presidential debate season has ended and only 12 days remain before the national election on Nov. 8. This is a good time to evaluate the format of presidential debates and discuss what could be changed for them to better suit the modern political reality.
The current format, used by the Republican Party in presidential primaries in 2008, 2012 and 2016 had large groups, in aggregate 37 men and two women, standing side by side on a stage answering questions from a moderator. While at times the questions could be hard hitting and revealing, they often were banal. In an attempt to make the Republican candidates more likable, the 2012 primary season included asking hopefuls, “This or That,” questions. Michelle Bachmann, the only female candidate, was asked, “Elvis, or Johnny Cash?” Even that was insightful compared to the 2016 interrogatives, which often followed the form, “Senator, Donald Trump said this terrible thing about you. What is your response?” This led to mudslinging and coarse talk about the size of “manhood.” In that debate cycle, only Carly Fiorina attempted to stay out of the gutter.
By contrast, the Democratic Party’s debates, with only 13 candidates in 2008 and 2016, including the same, sole woman both times, were superficially genteel, with eventual nominee Barack Obama lamely declaring, “You’re likeable enough, Hillary,” to this year’s nominee.
Is this really how we want to base our choice for president?
Let’s start the debates a little differently. Both parties publicly revel in having large initial cadres of potentials , while privately bemoaning the plethora of unelectables in the race. Caught with an open mic, John Edwards confided to fellow front runner Hillary Clinton in 2008 the need to winnow the field, perhaps wishing to eliminate the upstart Obama. The Republican Party has had to defend against the “clown car” charge in each of the last three presidential cycles; during the 2012 campaign, it seemed a different candidate was leading each week, but melted down in turn under intense scrutiny from the press and public.
Here’s a way to separate the wheat from the chaff: the day of a debate, the participants are introduced to the audience, and then separated into sound proof booths, where they will take a test. Each candidate will get identical questions, and the same amount of time to answer them. These won’t be “gotcha” questions, like asking Donald Trump about an obscure Iranian general, or even asking Sarah Palin what newspapers she reads (both were stumped by the questions). When George W. Bush failed to name the leaders of Chechnya, India and Pakistan, his communication director defended him, saying he was running for president, not to be a Jeopardy contestant. So, forget using Jeopardy as a model; think Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader?
Potential questions would be (1) Which country is our largest trading partner? (2) Name the eight Supreme Court justices. (3) What was the first battle of the American Civil War, and which side won? (4) What is the difference between Sunni and Shia? (5) Which of those is predominant in Saudi Arabia? (6) Which is predominant in Iran? (7) Who are the elected leaders of Mexico and Canada? (8) How many Cabinet positions are there, and what are they called? (9) What are the five largest corporations in America, and who are the CEOs? (10) What is the difference between fission and fusion? (11) What is the capital of Cleveland? (Ok, that last one is a trick question.)
None of these questions are ambiguous or polemic, and they demonstrate rudimentary knowledge of the world in which we live. Prepare 200,000 of these, or 1,000,000, at a level comparable to that of a senior high school government exam — it shouldn’t be too much information for a candidate to cram during an all nighter. Let Watson, IBM’s super computer, randomly select which ones will be administered as a method to avoid bias. Since the national audience loves a good show, gather all the contestants, er, candidates, on stage after the results have been tabulated and announce the five highest scorers who will move on to the next round, like in the Miss America pageant. “Our next debater and Governor of Washington, Johnny Olsen, come on down.” Even if this process only eliminates the Herman Cains of the world (“I’m ready for the ‘gotcha’ questions and they’re already starting to come. And when they ask me who is the president of Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan, I’m going to say, you know, I don’t know. Do you know?” Herman Cain said in October 2011 to Christian Broadcasting Network interviewer David Brody), perhaps we can concentrate on the serious people vying for the world’s most difficult job.
In the debate that follows, serious policy questions would take precedent over petty, childish topics. Each candidate could choose to give broad general answers or delve into specifics, but they would be required to stay on topic and speak to their positive solutions to pressing issues, not spend their allotted time denigrating their opponents.
Let’s modify the Oxford Style of debating, in which two teams are pitted against each other over a single question. Let’s put the presidential and vice presidential candidates on teams and debate a series of questions over foreign and domestic policy in September and October of election years. In round one, each participant will make a three minute opening statement, followed by questions and answers from a panel of experts in round two. Candidates can engage with each other, forcing each other off their prepared talking points, but their microphones will be cut if they give non-responsive answers, become abusive, or interrupt and talk over their opponents. Fact checking will be instantaneous, scrolled for the audience; it’s a shame that veracity must be called into question in campaigns, but such is our world. In round three, each candidate will be able to give a two minute closing statement. Voting, which is the normal way of declaring a winner in this style of discourse, will be held in abeyance until the national plebiscite. The moderator will be a disinterested person, if one can be found, or at least one who hides their predispositions well. Perhaps that job will go to a foreigner, but there is certainly no benefit to having a TV journalist ask probing questions; TV reporting does not confer special knowledge of complex subjects, nor does it prevent television personalities from bias. Employ scientists or other dispassionate, logical people to formulate questions. Have their questions reviewed by sequestered surrogates from both parties, to reduce the unfairness. If there is to be a live audience, let them show their approval or disapproval; if they must keep silent, what’s the point of having spectators?
If law making is equivalent to making sausage, in that we are better off not seeing it done, the 2016 presidential debates must be well below that, perhaps cleaning up the slaughterhouse floor. We have four years to make course corrections to improve the process, making it a shining example of transparent democracy instead of cringeworthy reality TV.
Bill Delehunt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org